H.006. Piedmont Industrialization: Durham, N.C.
- Creator: Southern Oral History Program
- Collection: Southern Oral History Program Interviews
The Durham, N.C., interviews document the experiences of workers in the city's tobacco, textile, and hosiery industries. Durham began its transformation from a crossroads into a major industrial city with the completion of the railroad line between Raleigh and Greensboro, just prior to the Civil War. After the war, Robert F. Morris, one of the largest farmers in Orange County, moved his tobacco business to Durham. William Blackwell, a Person County merchant, acquired the business in 1869 and, in 1870, he took Julian Shakespeare Carr, son of Chapel Hill's leading merchant, as a partner. Carr assumed full ownership of the plant in 1883. By the mid-1880s, Durham had many other tobacco companies, among them Washington Duke and Sons. The Dukes gradually absorbed Blackwell's and other firms and, by 1890, had established a consolidated cigarette firm, the American Tobacco Company. Anti-trust action in 1911, however, forced the dissolution of the company, which was reorganized as the new American Tobacco Company consisting of the former Duke properties, and Liggett and Meyers, which included Blackwell's former holdings. The textile and hosiery industries in Durham arose in conjunction with the tobacco industry. These mills provided outlets for surplus capital and made bags and other products needed by the tobacco companies. Among Durham's textile establishments was the Erwin Cotton Manufacturing Company and mill village in West Durham, founded by members of the Duke family. William Erwin, who was related to the Holts of Alamance County and had supervised Plaid Mill, served as superintendent. Eventually, Erwin took on Kemp Plummer Lewis, whose family owned the Rocky Mount Cotton Mills, as an associate. The hosiery industry in Durham had similar origins. In 1884, J. S. Carr and J. M. Odell, established the Durham Cotton Mill in East Durham. By the 1890s, Carr, driven out of tobacco by the Tobacco Trust, devoted most of his energies to hosiery as he consolidated 14 local mills into one company. Work is one of the most important topics covered in these interviews. Many of the interviewees migrated to Durham from surrounding farms (among them, Stagville, owned by Bennehan Cameron), and many of them alternated between farm or sawmilling jobs and work in the city's factories. Often the interviews include accounts of sharecropping, farm work, lumbering, and sawmilling. Among women, domestic service often was their first job. In talking about work in the tobacco factories, the interviewees focus on work conditions, the steps involved in processing tobacco, the division of labor by gender and by race, labor policies, the advent of labor unions, and strikes. The textile and hosiery workers cover similar topics, as well as speedups and time studies. A number of the interviewees relate their personal recollections of William Erwin and Kemp Plummer Lewis. Race relations are covered more thoroughly in these interviews than in others in the series because many of the tobacco workers were African Americans. Many of the interviewees discussed segregation in the factories, both in jobs and in the facilities provided for blacks and whites. Other topics relating to race relations include segregation and discrimination in the churches, schools, neighborhoods, mill villages, and especially in the unions. Racial violence, such as lynching and Ku Klux Klan incidents, and miscegenation, are also discussed. Almost all of the interviewees discussed childhood experiences, work as children, education, family life, courtship and marriage, and living conditions. Many of the interviewees described boarding house life, their homes, sanitation facilities, and life in the mill villages. Education occupies a particularly important place in these interviews because some of them were conducted by Kenneth Kornblau, a Duke undergraduate, for a paper on the Durham schools. These interviews focus on the backgrounds and experiences of teachers and school officials and on the history of Durham's school system. Music played an important role in the lives of many of the people interviewed. They sang in the tobacco factories, played guitars and other instruments, and formed bands and singing groups to perform gospel music and the blues. Several interviewees shared memories of Gary Davis, a nationally known blues singer from Durham. Two of the interviewees worked as musicians, touring with medicine shows and performing on the radio. Other forms of recreation and entertainment are dances, cornshucking and quilting parties, movies, vaudeville, and sports. These interviews touch on a variety of other topics. Many of the interviewees discussed illnesses, such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, typhoid, and the flu epidemic of 1918. Medical care, especially the segregated services provided by the tobacco companies, is also covered. Many of the women discussed birth control, pregnancy, childbirth, and abortion. Religion was important in the lives of many of the interviewees, and most of them discussed their church involvement. Crime, street life, and prostitution are also covered in several of the interviews. Finally, most of the interviewees discussed the Depression, and a few of them referred to experiences during World War I and World War II.